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Who are the NATO-led troops caught in the Kosovo tensions?

Ella Joyner Brussels
May 30, 2023

Peacekeeping troops from the NATO-led Kosovo mission are caught up in an acrimonious episode between ethnic Serbs and Kosovo authorities. But how did they get there in the first place?

Kosovo Force (KFOR) soldiers clash with local Kosovo Serb protesters at the entrance of the municipality office, in the town of Zvecan, Kosovo.
KFOR soldiers have been guarding municipal offices were attacked by protestersImage: Laura Hasani/REUTERS

What happened to NATO-led troops in Kosovo?

Residents of Serb-majority areas in Kosovo have been protesting as ethnically Albanian mayors took office following polls boycotted by the Serb community. Kosovo authorities forced their way into municipal buildings to escort new mayors in last week, earning Pristina rebukes from the United States and other allies that had previously called for restraint. The previous mayors resigned due to a dispute with the government in Pristina.

In light of the escalating tensions between protesters and the Kosovo police, troops from the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping mission were deployed in Zvecan, a Serb-dominated town some 45 kilometers (28 miles) from Pristina, among other spots.

On Monday, 11 Italian and 19 Hungarian soldiers from KFOR were injured in clashes with ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo, according to the latest update from KFOR. Some sustained fractures, burns from improvised explosives and injuries from firearm use, the KFOR statement continued. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said that 52 ethnic Serbs were also injured.

NATO sends additional forces to Kosovo

On Tuesday, KFOR commander Angelo Michele Ristuccia said that the troops were there to de-escalate tensions and had "prevented threats to the lives of Kosovo Serbs and Kosovo Albanians."

"Both parties need to take full responsibility for what happened and prevent any further escalation, rather than hide behind false narratives," Ristuccia added in the KFOR statement.

The four municipalities of northern Kosovo are largely ethnically Serb, while Kosovo as a whole is 90% ethnically Albanian. Many in the north do not recognize the statehood of Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

Belgrade (backed by Russia and China) regards Kosovo as a breakaway Serbian province, while the US and most of the European Union have recognized Pristina's independence. Ethnic Serbs in Kosovo are often highly distrustful of national authorities and retain close relations with Belgrade.

Who are the KFOR troops stationed in Kosovo?

Around 3,800 troops from 27 different countries (mostly NATO members) are currently stationed in Kosovo for the KFOR mission. They come from various EU states (though not all EU countries recognize Kosovo as a state), regional neighbors like North Macedonia and Montenegro, and non-EU NATO powers like the United States, Canada, Turkey and the United Kingdom. Several non-NATO countries also contribute.

The many reasons behind the latest Kosovo flareup

Why are they there?

KFOR troops have been stationed in Kosovo since the end of the Kosovo War in 1999 to keep the peace between Kosovo Serbs and Kosovo Albanians, with tensions and violence flaring up periodically. Back then, KFOR troops numbered 50,000.

NATO intervened in Kosovo in 1999 in a bid to end violence after years of increasing repression of the Albanian population in what was then Yugoslavia — at that point made up of Serbia, of which Kosovo was a province, and Montenegro — by the Serb-dominated government, amid a growing Kosovo Albanian guerrilla insurgency.

The Western military alliance carried out a 78-day massive aerial bombardment campaign that led to Serbian forces pulling out of Kosovo. The outcome of the war, in addition to Serbia's deep economic troubles, ultimately led to massive protests that pushed out Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. 

Many Kosovo Albanians were already internally displaced, and hundreds of thousands more fled during the NATO campaign. When Serbian forces withdrew, many but not all Kosovo Serbs also left for Serbia. KFOR’s role was, among other things, to protect the remaining Serbs in Kosovo and support the international humanitarian effort. After the war ended, Kosovo was politically administered by the United Nations until it declared independence.

Edited by: Timothy Jones

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